Where I live in Idaho it has been an extremely challenging winter for us horse owners. While other parts of our state have the reputation of snowy, blustery, Montana-like winters, the southwestern corner of the state where I am is high desert, averaging a mere four inches of snow per year and often referred to as the “banana belt.” Not so this year. We are experiencing a winter exceeding all records and it’s only just the beginning of February. We have had over 30 inches of snow with nearly two months of temps consistently below freezing. Seems like every time with dig ourselves and our horses out from one snow there is another one around the bend. It’s enough to make horse person like me stir crazy!
Dealing with snow and ice on horse properties is worrisome, especially if you have older horses, horses shod all the way around, or reining horses with slide plates – of which we have some in each category. The other complicating issue is accomplishing chores while skating around with a manure cart in tow. Or picking up frozen-to-the-ground manure. Even things like getting the farrier’s truck in or negotiating a hay delivery is a production in a winter like this with all thick ice everywhere.
If you, too, are dealing with ice on your horse property and are looking for a few ice buster tips, here are a few to try out. I will start with preventative steps to keep in mind for NEXT fall and move to treatment options for while you’re in the throes of snow and ice-ville.
When designing a confinement area, locate paddocks and all heavy use areas on higher, well-drained areas so that water runs away and does not accumulate in the confinement areas and buildings. Make sure there are no nearby hills or surfaces that funnel runoff into your barns, paddocks or high traffic areas. A slope like that can potentially dump lots of runoff onto a property. Have good footing, such as coarse washed sand or crushed rock (without fines), in your paddocks and high traffic areas. These inorganic footing products drain better than organic materials like chipped wood which will hold moisture and become slippery in a freeze, see: Creating and Using A Sacrifice Area. Plus, the chore of picking up manure is much easier with inorganic footing.
- Pick up manure daily to keep areas from becoming muddy and slick. A build-up of organic materials and mud will hold moisture and be prone to freezing.
- Install gutters and downspouts on all barns and outbuildings. In the fall, keep them clear and flowing by cleaning out leaves and debris which can clog the system, potentially causing overflows. During winter watch for and break up ice dams as they start to occur.
- When it does snow, consider shoveling or removing snow from paddocks to prevent a possible snow and ice build-up. This can be done by hand with a shovel or by tractor.
When icy paddocks happen here are a few options:
- Keep a pile of sand accessible for the winter months. If possible, keep the pile tarped or covered to prevent extra moisture seeping into it, allowing it to freeze in cold weather. Or you may have an area of your arena that you can “borrow” sand from. Use a tractor with a bucket to convey sand to areas where it’s needed and a metal garden rake to scatter it over icy spots to provide much needed traction for all.
- Break/chop ice with a flat edged shovel or an ice-chopping tool (sold in hardware or landscape stores). This undesirable winter chore requires quite a bit of hard work and muscle power but is probably the best way to get ice out of your horse areas.
- Ice melt. There are many varieties of ice melt but only a few options are considered “pet safe” and environmentally viable. These products are probably best used judiciously in driveways and non-animal walk-ways. Even when labeled pet friendly, read the label carefully, use only as directed and check out a pet poison hotline if you chose to use it in a horse paddock. When using these products, to avoid environmental damage, ground water contamination or health issues for your pets or horses, use them sparingly and only as a very last resort.
- Rock salt (sodium chloride). Salt damages plants by dehydrating plant tissues and in high levels it’s toxic to animals. It can dry out dogs’ paws and potentially horse hooves or coats if they roll in much of it. Plus, it’s corrosive to concrete, metals and wood. In addition, it only works down to 20 degrees. However, it is inexpensive and may foot the bill for getting rid of a dangerous icy area - as long as temps aren’t too cold.
- Calcium magnesium acetate. CMA has a low corrosion potential so it’s less damaging to cars, metals, sidewalks, plants, and animals, plus it’s biodegradable. This product is most effective at 20 degrees, but still has some effect down to below zero. While it is usually reported as pet friendly, avoid using where it could be ingested by horses or dogs and read the label to make sure you understand all the ingredients included as some additives can be toxic even in small doses.
- Magnesium chloride. Mag chloride is applied as a liquid brine to roadways prior to storms as it lowers the freezing point of precipitation and melting ice down to -15° F. It is considered environmentally friendly and relatively safe for pets and plants when applied in moderate amounts. It also has a low corrosion potential. However, it can still be a skin or gastrointestinal irritant if ingested in quantity for pets or horses.
- Urea (ammonia sulfate, a quick-release chemical fertilizer). Deicer products with urea have a low corrosive level and are touted as “green” and safe for plants, pets, and the environment so presumably they are safe for horses. However, they are only minimally effective as a deicer since they only work at higher temps, like 25 - 30 degrees. They also pose a very high risk for ground water contamination and can burn pets’ feet or horses’ skins. Because of the danger urea poses to water contamination and pet health, as well as a lack of efficacy, urea is not considered worth using as an ice melt product.
- Potassium chloride. This deicer is expensive and not as widely used as a deicer because of rising costs of fertilizer. Because it is most commonly used as a fertilizer, it’s relatively safe to apply near plants, although a build-up can damage plants and it can be a severe skin and gastrointestinal irritant in pets and horses. It, too, works best when temperatures are 25° F and above, which further makes it an ineffective choice.
Before using any de-icing products, clear away as much snow and ice as possible and shovel frequently in high snowfall events. Remember, deicing products are meant to aid in snow removal, not to handle the entire job. Use a ice chipping bar (available at home supply stores or online) to break up ice.
If you do choose to use a deicing product in horse paddocks or animal high traffic areas, use with caution to avoid potential salt or chemical build up. Avoid tossing snow with deicing products directly onto plants or pasture. Misapplications of deicers (applying too much) can potentially leach into ground water or storm drains and cause serious water pollution issues.
Don’t neglect clearing human walkways of snow and ice for safety and chore efficiency. For humans navigating chores on ice, crampons are a necessity and literally a lifesaver! It can be extremely dangerous doing chores in the bitter cold when it’s also slick and icy.
You may even have to switch to different manure management equipment for chore-efficiency. One of my friends switched from using a cart with wheels to pulling her young daughter’s pink sled! We drive our Gator in cold, wintery weather and use it for manure pick-up. Instead of plastic manure forks (which can break in the cold when dealing with frozen manure) try a flat edged shovel or metal pitchfork.
What not to use
Avoid using shavings, manure or other organic materials on icy areas. In the end these materials add to the problem by breaking down and creating more muck and mud which holds moisture and gets icy in cold temps. If you do use them keep in mind that as soon as the situation thaws you need to begin scraping out all that organic material asap to avoid a new challenge of too much muck!
I don’t recommend using kitty litter; speaking from experience, while it offers momentary traction, it quickly dissolves into gummy clay, creating its own problems and no further solution to slick ice.
Good luck - I sure hope this winter’s snow is an exception and not the rule. In either case, it’s only 49 days, 12 hours and 7 minutes until the first day of spring!
Do you have other tips to share for managing ice in horse paddocks? Leave a comment and weigh in!